A former DUP minister has publicly set out the extraordinary story of how his advisor anonymously leaked emails to his most senior civil servant – and to this newspaper.
In evidence to the RHI Inquiry yesterday, former economy minister Simon Hamilton said the move – which was an attempt to shift pressure from the DUP to the civil service – was “not my proudest moment” and was “one of many things that I regret around this period”.
The emails were anonymously posted to the News Letter, the BBC and Andrew McCormick, the permanent secretary in Mr Hamilton’s department, at the height of the storm around the RHI scheme in January and February 2017, arriving with this newspaper in two batches in an envelope delivered by Royal Mail.
Last week it emerged at the inquiry that the chief executive of the Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU), Wesley Aston, had forwarded those emails to Arlene Foster’s former special advisor Andrew Crawford about six weeks before they were leaked.
For a time the emails took the focus off the DUP, by showing that some civil servants had been openly briefing the industry about looming cost controls ahead of a spike in RHI applications and that farmers had been lobbying the department to delay cost controls.
Yesterday Sir Patrick Coghlin’s inquiry heard how on January 5 2017, Dr McCormick sent Mr Hamilton an email to tell him that he had received the emails, some 14 days before they arrived with the News Letter.
However, what Dr McCormick did not know was that Mr Hamilton was already aware of the emails – and they had been sent to him on Mr Hamilton’s authority by his special advisor (Spad) John Robinson.
When asked by David Scoffield QC yesterday whether he knew who had sent the emails to Dr McCormick, Mr Hamilton said: “I do.”
He said that he believed he first became aware of the emails in late December but he is unsure whether he actually saw them before they went to Dr McCormick.
He said that he was not aware until the inquiry’s work “of the original source” of the emails, the UFU chief executive.
He said he could see that “these are not unhelpful, shall we put it like that, to Dr Crawford and the argument – the unfair attacks that I believe he was under at that time – that they had passed through his hand”.
Mr Hamilton said he became aware of the emails through his Spad, Mr Robinson, who “had got a copy of them”.
He said: “From my perspective, from the party’s perspective at that stage, this is pretty significant because there are many charges that are being levelled against us and one of them is that issue, in terms, that ‘your Spads were meddling with things in 2015 and that’s what caused the spike’.
“This is evidence that, while not completely refuting that, it cast a significant shadow of doubt on that accusation because ... the dates on these emails [were before a submission had even gone to the then minister Jonathan Bell and a decision was delayed].”
Mr Hamilton said that he believed that he had two conversations with Mr Robinson about the issue. He stressed that “these are not confidential emails – these are not emails coming from inside the system or anything like that”.
He said he took the view that “this is pretty explosive” and that although it “needs to be dealt with properly”, doing so by handing it formally to Dr McCormick would see it “get bogged down in a process – properly so”.
Mr Hamilton said he had no concerns about Dr McCormick failing to take the matter seriously or burying it, but he suspected there could be a bureaucratic delay which would have meant that “it would never have necessarily seen the light of day”.
Mr Hamilton said that after discussing it with Mr Robinson they talked about how “this would be useful if it was in the public domain” and that the following time they discussed the issue, “John is telling me that he has sent it to Dr McCormick, this is anonymously, in an envelope, and also sent it to a journalist and I think one other as well”.
Inquiry panel member and former senior Whitehall civil servant Dame Una O’Brien said with a degree of incredulity: “To your own permanent secretary?”
Mr Hamilton said: “Yes.”
Dame Una said: “Anonymously?”
Mr Hamilton replied: “Yes.”
Dame Una said: “I just wanted to be clear that I heard that.”
Mr Hamilton said that he had acquiesced in a process whereby the emails were leaked due to the “febrile atmosphere” of the time and said that in other circumstances he may not have acted as he did.
The DUP minister faced intense questioning from the inquiry panel as to why as minister he had allowed his Spad to act as he had done.
Mr Hamilton said: “I accept that this is highly unorthodox.”
However, he went on to say: “I would set it in the time that we found ourselves in where we are getting – we being the party – are being assailed on all sides ... and there isn’t much to fire back, there isn’t much to combat some of these allegations with. Here is something that is very different to anything we’ve had before ... [it was] pretty straightforward to understand; hence we did what we did.”
Mr Hamilton said he took the view that “it is of little use to the party in defending itself against these accusations” if it was not released publicly.
Inquiry panel member Dame Una O’Brien highlighted that the DUP was aware of the immense mental strain which Dr McCormick was feeling at that point, where others were concerned for him given his distress at the knowledge that he had been secretly recorded by former DUP minister Jonathan Bell.
Mr Hamilton said the move was not intended to undermine him or put pressure on him.
But Dr Keith MacLean, the inquiry’s technical assessor, asked: “But what was it going to do? You’re wanting to take pressure off you by putting out information which is pointing the finger at somebody else.”
Sir Patrick Coghlin said: “What you are doing is using the cloak of anonymity to take the pressure off a Spad ... and place it on officials who are full-time civil servants for whom you are responsible as minister.”
Mr Hamilton said: “There probably wasn’t much thought given to those sorts of issues at the time.”